2023-23: Bueckert v National Post

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April 21, 2023 – for immediate release

The National NewsMedia Council found that corrective action was taken to address a complaint about issues of accuracy and insensitive language use in a March 3, 2023 opinion column, “The West keeps subsidizing the Palestinian Authority’s death culture,” published by the National Post.

Michael Bueckert, vice president of the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, filed a complaint with the NNC about the column’s use of the terms “terrorism” and “death culture” in its argument that “the West is subsidizing the Palestinian Authority to destabilize Israel.”

In particular, the complainant stated that the opinion article’s use of the term “terror” was  inaccurate in that it captured a variety of acts of resistance, including non-violent acts, and that the term implies deliberate acts of violence targeted towards civilians. He argued that such language is inaccurate and inflammatory.

In its response to the complaint, the news organization noted that the term “terror” does not have a universally agreed upon definition, and that the contention raised by the complaint in this case is with “how the Israeli government defines terrorism.” The news organization pointed to a government source that included various definitions of terrorism and challenges associated with determining an agreed upon definition.

As well, the news organization stated that the use of the term “death culture” offers a “criticism of the Palestinian Authority’s martyrs fund and treating those who kill Israelis as heroes. It is not a criticism of all Palestinians in general.”

The news organization reiterated that the concerns raised with respect to language indicated a disagreement with the perspective put forth in the column and not a matter of accuracy. It noted that it published a letter the complainant submitted that outlined his views on the language used in the column and its potential impact on the wider community.

In reviewing the matter, the NNC considered two factors. First, the NNC examined long-accepted standards surrounding opinion writing. Second, the NNC considered the efforts made by the news organization to update the article prior to the complainant lodging their formal complaint.

The NNC consistently states that it supports the long-accepted journalistic practice giving columnists and opinion writers wide latitude to express their views. Standard journalistic practice allows opinion writers to use strong language that others may find offensive and to express unpopular or provocative views, so long as the published statements are grounded in fact and articles are clearly labelled for readers.

The NNC observed that the opinion piece  is clearly labelled and that the piece includes information about the writer’s organization at the foot of the article, as is standard. The opinion writer also states that the report featured in the piece was published by his own organization.

The NNC recognizes that the opinion presented in this case is strongly worded and demonstrates a clear worldview that others may disagree with or even find objectionable. With respect to the specific terms in question, the NNC accepts the news organization’s position that their use in the column reflects the position of the opinion writer and does not indicate factual inaccuracy.

Importantly, the NNC agrees that there is a distinction between stating that a particular political party or movement is responsible for perpetuating, or even glorifying, violence compared to an entire ethnic group.

It is the view of the NNC that while published opinions do not always call for counter opinions to be presented with equal weight, letters are appropriate remedies to address concerns in some cases, as they may add nuance to a particular story or provide an important counter argument for readers to consider.

The NNC recognizes that readers will have strong opinions on this particular subject, and that it is their prerogative to disagree with the opinions presented. In this case, the NNC supports the news organization’s decision to publish the complainant’s letter that raises important points for readers to consider, namely, how language use has an impact on reader perspectives.

We would note that simply because the NNC supports the prerogative of the opinion writer in this case to put forth the arguments in question, that does not mean that the NNC supports the argument itself. Further, the NNC notes that, in this case, publishing a counter perspective in the form of a letter raises important points for readers on the subject of language use.

In reviewing this complaint, the NNC also considered the efforts by the news organization to provide clarifications to the column. Specifically, the NNC noted how the news organization updated the article to clarify the origin of comments attributed to the Palestinian Authority Leader. In the original column, comments were attributed as coming directly from the Leader when, in fact, they were gathered from the Leader’s Facebook page.

For the reasons outlined above, the NNC considered the matter resolved due to corrective action.